Sunday, May 8, 2011

Harry Shelmire Ross: The War Stays Home

In the aftermath of World War I, the official number of American casualties was a butcher’s bill of 116,516 dead and 204,000 wounded. Given the images we  know today of muddy, water filled trenches, bombed out blighted landscapes, and rows upon rows of white crosses that mark the final resting places in France of thousands of those casualties, it is easy to think that everyone who gave their lives for their country did so on European soil. The story of at least one young Philadelphian can show that this wasn’t always the case, and some of those that died in service during the Great War did so at home.

Young Harry Shelmire Ross could be given as a perfect example of the “Cream of American Youth” that took up the call to arms to fight in World War I. Born on December 13, 1894, he was the son and grandson of prominent Philadelphia lawyers. As part of the Philadelphia “elite”, he enjoyed the benefits an upper class upbringing. He attended the prestigious Central High School, where he was captain of the football team, and served as President of his class in his senior year. Graduating with top honors in 1912, he moved on to the University of Pennsylvania, where he became one of the institutions most distinguished athletes. As the halfback for the Quakers, his name regularly appeared in newspaper accounts of Penn football games, and in 1916 he anchored the Penn rowing crew team as their stroke oarsman. A member of the Psi Upsilon fraternity, after graduation he entered Penn’s Wharton School of Business. Young, handsome and popular, he seemed destiny to a life of prominence and accomplishment. Then, the terrible war in Europe intervened.

On April 2, 1917 President Woodrow Wilson, prompted largely by Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare on the U.S, asked Congress for declaration of war on the Central Powers, throwing the Nation into the carnage that had been raging since 1914. Thousands of young Americans rushed to enlist, hastily filling the ranks of an Army that was only 200,000 strong. Soon after the President’s declaration, young Harry Ross left his semester to enlist with hundreds of other Penn students. First sent to Allentown, Pennsylvania to train with the Ambulance Corps, an old football injury had him declared “unfit” and he was sent home. Possibly through the influence of his father, he was then accepted into the only service branch that still had retained some measure of glamour despite three years of war  – the Army Aviation Service.

At the start of the conflict the belief of a “great adventure” was to be had and a “glorious victory” was to be won prompted many young German, French and British men to enlist in their respective services. That rose-colored image of war was soon shattered permanently when throngs of the same young men were hurtled headlong from trenches into open fields and then cut down by the thousands by machine guns. By 1917 the images and accounts of the slaughter on the ground offered Americans none of the illusions from 1914. Yet the newly-minted idea of the “Aviation Ace” - flying high over the miles of trenches and the corpse filled fields, engaging in aerial combat, shooting down their foe in thrilling dogfights - only grew in renown and prestige as the war crawled on, helped considerably by the fact that most flyers were selected from the “elite” class that Harry Ross came from. Young, virile, and educated, it is no surprise that he was accepted for aviation duty, perhaps enamored by the “flying knights” image that World War I aviators had obtained in the public eye. His first training was the ground school that was set up at Princeton University, where he completed his courses with ease in early 1918. Sent to Texas to complete his aviation training, he was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant. Unlike many of his comrades, he was not then shipped off to test his mettle against the Aces of Germany. At age 23 his flying acumen was as such that the United States Army decided to keep him home to train other pilots.

While the soldiers of the US 1st Division were facing German machine guns at Cantigny in May 1918 and US Marines were being blooded at Belleau Wood in June 1918 in France, Lieutenant Ross dutifully carried out his assignment of getting other pilots trained and ready for air combat. His duty station, Call Field in Wichita Falls, Texas, had been established only a year before, and eventually would produce 500 pilots and two full squadrons that saw service oversees. However, it also saw a total of 34 men lose their lives in accidents. On July 11, 1918, young Lieutenant Ross, cream of the Philadelphia elite, possibly destined for a life of prominence, tragically became one of those 34 casualties. Flying in his Curtiss JN-4D “Jenny”, his plane went into a tailspin on a training run and fell less than 100 feet before crashing, killing him instantly, but leaving his co-pilot and trainee relatively unharmed.  On a hot July day in Texas, he gave his life for his country the same time hundreds of his countrymen were doing the same in France.

His remains were sent home to Philadelphia to be received by his grieving parents, and his funeral was held in their residence in Angora Terrace. He was laid to rest in Northwood Cemetery in northwest Philadelphia, where his grave marker is topped with an engraving of his pilot’s wings.

Call Field, where he gave his life, continued after the war to be a flying school until the mid-1920, when it was dismantled. Today Wichita Falls’ University Park subdivision occupies the site. In 1937, near where the field’s gate was located in present day Rotary Park, a monument was erected to honor the 34 men who died in training flights during the war. The name of “H.S. Ross” can be found on the monument, fourth from the top.

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